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Colorado trial on school adequacy, equity has implications for Minnesota

After six years of motions, appeals and countermotions, earlier this week a landmark trial over the constitutionality of Colorado’s school funding system opened. For the next month, a parade of education-policy notables will take the witness stand to debate whether that state’s education system is underfunded. 

Why should you, Dear Reader, care about Lobato v. State, when the state in question is not Minnesota? Because at its heart, the suit is about whether a court system can order a legislature to create an adequate and equitable system for paying for public education.

Lobato’s long list of plaintiffs assert [PDF] that state funding falls a whopping $2 billion to $4 billion short of the amount that would allow schools to meet increasingly specific, stringent standards for student performance. According to Education Week, more than half of Colorado’s 178 school districts have contributed to the cost of the suit and 100 school boards have passed resolutions of support.

Represented by the state’s attorney general, defendant Gov. John Hickenlooper counters that the amount the plaintiffs consider “full funding” would bankrupt the state, and that no evidence exists tying educational achievement to a particular level of spending.

Parade of experts coming
Each side will need a hand truck to haul its expert witnesses’ CVs into the courtroom of Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport, who will likely need a quiet stay in a sanatorium by the time she’s decided who’s right.

If she rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it’s unlikely she will mandate a particular level of funding. Rather, the judge would probably instruct the Legislature to come up with a different system. In part because Colorado law requires voter approval of tax increases, the exercise could get interesting, to put it mildly.

Because most state constitutions hold an adequate education to be a right, since 1970 45 school-funding suits have gone forward around the country. Plaintiffs have won two-thirds of the 33 cases resolved to date.

A first generation concentrated on equity, and typically involved complaints of inequalities created by disparate funding from one district to another. The most recent suits focus on adequacy per se, with schools arguing, in essence, that new standards are a kind of unfunded mandate.

Laws more prescriptive on benchmarks
Federal and state laws have become more prescriptive in terms of the number of students who must pass high-stakes tests, graduate from high school and meet other benchmarks, even as funding in most states has fallen.

In Minnesota, we have our own list of notables, including a number who have lived through relatively recent school funding suits. We also have a school-funding system that has changed significantly since any of them were headline material.

The most famous is a 1971 decision by federal Judge Miles W. Lord. In the wake of a legislative deadlock over education funding, he ruled that Minnesota’s funding system violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause and suggested the Legislature get cracking if it didn’t want him to design the fix. The special session that ensued gave birth to the Minnesota Miracle, which leveled the funding playing field between poor districts and rich ones.

More recent suits involved Minnesota’s constitution, which states: "The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state."

Skeen v. State
In 1988, 52 Minnesota districts brought suit over continued inequalities in funding. The state Supreme Court decided Skeen v. State in 1993, affirming education as a “fundamental right” but concluded that basic state funding at the time was adequate.

A suit filed by the Minneapolis NAACP in 1995 alleged that Minneapolis Public Schools were not providing either an adequate or an equitable education to the city’s poor minorities. The case settled in 2000 with an agreement that the state would pay to bus certain kids to suburban districts and to create a range of programming including inter-district magnets.

Shortly thereafter, then-House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty led a restructuring of the state tax system that undid the property-tax equalization at the heart of the Minnesota Miracle. Districts throughout the state were forced to begin cutting budgets and, when Pawlenty began resorting to shifts to balance the budget, spend down reserves and borrow.

Since then, Minnesota schools have become more segregated than they were when Lord called for equity, according to University of Minnesota Law School Professor Myron Orfield. And other states have seen a third wave of school funding suits focusing on segregation.

Ciresi-Walburn article
One figured into a pretty compelling commentary penned by Mike Ciresi and his law partner Roberta Walburn that ran in the Star Tribune in June.

“Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that — despite a multibillion state budget shortfall — it was unconstitutional for the legislature to cut funding for disadvantaged schools,” they wrote. “The court ordered the state to increase spending for those schools by $500 million next year.

Mike Ciresi
Mike Ciresi

“Legislators in Minnesota should listen and not just hear. The New Jersey decision is based in part on a provision in that state's constitution that is very similar — in fact, uses some identical language — to the Minnesota constitution.”

In addition to serving on the board of the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children and expounding passionately on the tragedy of the achievement gap, they happen to be pretty fearsome trial attorneys. Perhaps someone could save them a couple of seats in Judge Rappaport’s Denver courtroom, just in case it’s time to revisit Steen?

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Comments (5)

Nice work, Beth, and thanks for including the language from the Minnesota Constitution.

Where to begin…

In today’s political climate, with tax rates lower than they’ve been since Eisenhower was president (something I’m old enough to remember), and the country moving toward corporate oligarchy as a substitute for citizen government, right-wing Republicans have nonetheless managed to convince the general public that we’re somehow over-taxed, that schools, especially urban schools, are inept or corrupt, or both, and that whatever the situation in schools, no one should have to pay for them. This is a lawsuit I’ll follow with considerable interest, because I was a public school teacher for 30 years, because I was a Colorado resident and citizen for a dozen years, because I’ve already noted in other comments on MinnPost that the Minnesota Constitution is quite explicit in its language regarding public education, and because the growing achievement gap spells doom for a democratic society.

Colorado’s misnamed TABOR (“Taxpayer Bill of Rights”) Amendment – devised and promoted by Douglas Bruce, the Colorado equivalent of Michele Bachmann, but more mean-spirited, and now indicted for tax fraud – has crippled the state’s government at every level, including school districts. Requiring every tax increase to be put to a public vote is essentially the same as asking 6-year-olds to vote on whether they’d like brussels sprouts or ice cream. TABOR will, indeed, make any attempt by the Colorado legislature to correct funding inequities “interesting.” It should also highlight why Minnesotans should absolutely refuse to adopt anything similar at the behest of our own right-wing loonies.

As both teacher and citizen, my take is that a failure to provide genuinely equitable – essentially equal – resources, financial and otherwise, to every child in every school, is to make a cruel and sadistic joke of the very notion of “equal opportunity.” It’s a cynical betrayal of the promise of American society that we like to boast about to the rest of the world. Children are not stupid. The girl who sees the flaking paint and cracked windows in her century-old classroom, where she’s reading a textbook written when Jimmy Carter was the newly-elected president, then notices on TV that other kids are in buildings with carpeting, air-conditioning, and textbooks that are only a year old, doesn’t need a graduate degree to figure out that she’s being treated as a second-class citizen, no matter what her color, ethnic group or family situation might be.

The results of this trial have the potential to make a lot of Republicans in Minnesota VERY uncomfortable, not to mention their counterparts in Colorado. There’s been plenty of rhetoric in recent years about “opportunity,” but minorities and the poor, whether rural or urban, rarely benefit from anything approaching genuine equity in terms of both education funding and commitment from the state, which means their opportunities simply are NOT equal. John Hickenlooper in Colorado is merely the unhappy occupier of the Governor’s chair when these Colorado chickens came home to roost, and it’s conceivable that Mark Dayton might find himself in the same position here.

I hope Ciresi and Walburn do manage to get a couple seats in Judge Rappaport’s Denver courtroom, at least for the day when her verdict is read.

It’s interesting to note that Mr. Pawlenty’s legacy not only includes a multi-billion-dollar deficit, but the seeds for the undoing of the property tax equalization that would have provided the equal opportunity vital to the maintenance of both functional democracy and a thriving economy. One more reason for him to fade into well-justified obscurity...

Let us move to a system that funds children and families instead of unions.

I think you're confused. Unions play a huge part in the fight for the adequate funding of our children's schools. How is that not funding our families and children?

#2 "system that funds children and families instead of unions."
Anyone who has actively participated in the support of Minnesota's educational system knows that the vast majority of the people involved; both administrators and teachers; are there, not because of the 'wonderful' benefits but because they believe in education and care about families and children. Out of that care came the gradual choice by teachers to unionize to provide the support and compensation packages that would attract the best, brightest and most skilled people to educate our future generations of worker citizens.
While gambling CEO's; who endangered the economies of the world with their greedy, risky behavior; have seen nothing but gargantuan increases in income and perks, teachers; to whom we entrust our most precious asset, our children; have been maligned and denigrated for choosing collective bargaining. Collective bargaining used to achieve adequate resources to provide excellent education for the children while assuring that the teachers can live decent lives throughout their careers and well deserved retirement.
Shame on anyone for condemning teachers' collective bargaining. Go after the swinish CEO's and wealthy owners who benefit from well educated workers but are not willing to do everything they can to help defray the costs of that education.

Minnesota's education funding is unconstitutional. That unconstitutionality can be proven much more simply and directly than the costly adequacy litigations are attempting to do. Minnesota forces local school districts to spend 700 million dollars more per year on special education than it provides in revenues, and the deficit is not equally divided amongst districts. The State withdrew any source of local revenue to make up that difference, promising instead to fund fully special education at the state level. The result has been that local districts with high special education deficits are forced to seek operating referendum support to fund this deficit. This system -- deciding whether to fund basic programs by referendum amounts to deciding whether to comply with the state constitution by referendum. We do not hold referendums to decide whether minorities can vote, whether citizens can freely exercise their religion, and so on. If the State fully funded the special education mandate, most of the school districts would no longer need operating referenda.